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Altered Consciousness: Critiquing Liberalism

Published: November 12, 2010
Section: Opinions

GRAPHIC BY Ariel Wittenberg/The Hoot

Perhaps the defining aspect of modern liberalism is sympathy with the poor and weak over the powerful and strong. Certainly, this sentiment, which has fueled numerous progressive movements—including those devoted to civil rights, feminism and environmentalism—can be a noble one. Indeed, there are unjust inequalities and inequities in the world, and true egalitarianism, in the political, social and economic sense, is a rarity in most societies.

However, liberalism can become problematic when it takes a Manichean view in this respect. That is, individuals on the Left have a troubling tendency to view the world through a bifurcated prism, in which the institutions and forces associated with the powerful are evil solely by virtue of their status, as opposed to the weak, who are righteous and just. In particular, this attitude applies, in my view, to two key sources of power: the West and corporations.

The West is, by most objective measures, the ultimate source of power in the world and in international politics. The countries that belong in this category have very high GDP’s, possess strong militaries, have invested greatly in the well being of their citizens and are able to extend their economic, cultural, social and political influence far beyond their shores.

Many on the Left, though, view the West with a mixture of disdain, guilt, and even shame. They believe that Western civilization’s success is a product of imperialism, as well as the exploitation and oppression of the peoples of the Third World. These sentiments make liberals wary of nationalism and patriotism and cause them to incessantly apologize for the West’s past actions.

There is some truth to the Left’s accusations. Yes, historically speaking, the foreign policies of countries ranging from the United Kingdom to France to the United States have not been perfect by any means.

However, what is lacking in this analysis is nuance. For all of its flaws, the West is still a bastion of freedom and democracy that facilitates social mobility and promotes the ideals of the Enlightenment, including tolerance for all peoples, freedoms of speech, assembly, press, expression and the right to a fair trial.

Furthermore, if Western civilization were to disappear, what would replace it? A Chinese model of political oppression, authoritarianism, one-party-rule, and state-run capitalism? An Islamic civilization that is governed on the basis of Sharia law, is run by corrupt theocratic dictators, subjugates women, prevents any form of dissent to religious dogma and oppresses minorities because of their status as dhimmis and infidels?

Additionally, the Left’s relationship to corporations, which, like the West, collectively hold immense amounts of economic power and political influence, is marked by a similar lack of nuance and arguably, maturity. Liberals relentlessly accuse these institutions of being selfish, immoral and inherently corrupt organizations that act in their own interest at the expense of those who lack such influence and authority. Again, there is at least some truth to these statements.

At the same time, though, corporations are the basis for growth as well as the primary creators of prosperity, wealth and capital in any given market-driven economy. They are the main sources of economic and technological innovations that can prove to be of immense societal value. Also, if it weren’t for these institutions, millions would lack the ability to better themselves socially and economically. There is, indeed, beauty to be found in these forces that guide vibrant, dynamic free markets.

Additionally, as in the case of the West, the alternatives to corporations as employers and job creators are inferior. Corporations are, theoretically, extremely productive and efficient due primarily to the profit motive. In contrast, the public sector creates an incentive structure that is more suited towards regulating and administering, as opposed to raising capital. This contrast is made abundantly clear when one compares capitalist and centrally-planned, socialist and communist economies.

What I am calling for is not necessarily a change in policy but rather a change in attitude in liberalism. By all means, criticize the West and corporations for their excesses. However, the Left should also respect, value and take pride in the contributions of these forces, and note that their substitutes are inferior in most respects.